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Hi, I work for the local office of a multinational. Last week a fellow employee filed allegations of sexual harassment against me. We've been friends for a while and went out with a group of people last week, stayed out late, and then I went home by myself. Although I thought the interest was mutual, the flirting that happened was obviously not.

I was on the fast track, now I'm scrambling to keep my job. My question is, should I leave the firm and start over? I know what I did was galactically stupid but I can't imagine living under a glass ceiling because of this blight on my record.

Would appreciate any advice.

juliahhavener's picture

Allegations don't always mean you are ruined. It's a touchy subject, but depending on policy, an apology and knowing that you did misunderstand may be all that is needed.

It may go without saying, but I'll say it anyway: The above is only good if you follow it with the same professional behavior and results that you did prior to the allegation being made. If you work on a project team with that person, continue to do so with good grace.

jhack's picture

A sincere apology, no excuses, is probably your best bet.

You have to be very honest with yourself about your behavior. What, exactly, did you do? What did you say? How did you say it? What body language?

These are things on which the situation hangs. You need to face those things, and apologize for them specifically.

Good luck with what you must know is a very hard learned lesson.

John

bflynn's picture

Should you leave? In my opinion, yes, you should begin thinking about an exit. Regardless of how well you recover, this will always be a part of your record here. You must obtain a new position to have a chance at a new start.

However, you should recover first. Do not make this the reason you're leaving. Talk with your manager openly and honestly about it. Did you make a mistake or was it a true misunderstanding? Were you asked to stop? Were you discouraged, encouraged? I find it difficult to make suggestions because we don't know the details. Depending on what actually happened and the customs in your country, the same piece of advice could be helpful or harmful. For example, if you are in Japan, I think you know not to apologize since that is seen as an admission of guilt.

It is regrettable that this may limit your career.

Brian

RichRuh's picture

In case you haven't done so, please listen to the podcast on Sexual Harassment. It's aimed at the manager who has to deal with a complaint, but I'm sure you will find it useful as well.

--Rich

tomas's picture

It would be helpful to know where you are in the world.

For a pretty extreme example of behaviour outside of working hours found not to constitute sexual harrassment see:-

[url]http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,22271789-28737,00.htm...

Obviously will vary a lot depending on which country you are in.

sksingapore's picture

Thanks all for the advice ... I only listened to half the sexual harrassment podcast because I thought the possibility of needing it was slim. Didn't imagine I'd need to listen to it for myself.

I'm in Asia as you can guess and balancing the standards between local and multinational has its challenges. There was no objection from the other party but culture here doesn't encourage women to speak out so I had no idea I'd offended her until HR called me in.

Looks like the key will be treating the person graciously and continuing to deliver results until this cools down. Thanks again all.

US41's picture

She's making a power play. Sounds like you are ready to help her do it.

Don't.

This kind of thing is going to happen. You will fire someone and they will claim it was race. You will make a joke and someone will say you hate their religion. You will call someone up and tell them you think they rock, and they will five minutes later call your boss and say that you are threatening and that they are afraid you will hurt them. Someone will come on to you, you will turn them down, and they will claim you tried to rape them. You will try to help someone by adjusting their account, and someone will accuse you of embezzling or favoritism.

These days, we're all lightning rods for this kind of nonsense. Here's the bottom line: It's a power play. If you cave in to it, you will basically be admitting guilt. If you didn't do anything wrong, and it was an honest misunderstanding, then defend yourself. You can say you are open to feedback, welcome any corrective learning, and that you will endeavor to not do anything like that again. Say that you did not mean to harm anyone or make anyone uncomfortable. But don't just throw yourself to the wolves and apologize or start job shopping. That would be self-destructive.

This won't be the last time this happens to you. I have been investigated a couple of times by my company. I've had letters written following firings to the A-level folks complaining about me.

I resisted the accusations. I cooperated with the investigation. I asked them what I could provide that would help them. I stayed cheerful and yet at the same time presented myself as dubious and unafraid. I apologized if I engaged in borderline or gray-area behaviors. If I did nothing, I refused to apologize and said, "I have nothing to apologize for."

I don't hear that you did anything wrong. If it is a cultural misunderstanding, well, that is going to happen - A LOT. I have done years overseas and it happened to me as well.

So, before you follow the advice that says throw in the towel, consider what HUGE POWER you would be handing to anyone who wished to lie about you or hold you accountable for their behavior. You might as well go work at Wal-Mart as a greeter if you are going to be that thin-skinned.

Your reputation will survive. Corporate memory is very short. And surprisingly, no one else is as concerned with your life as you are.

Do what is right, accept responsibility only for your part, pledge to do different behavior, but DO NOT FALL ON YOUR SWORD.

Also of interest: studies show that sexual harassment claims are terribly bigoted based on attractiveness and good looks. A person who looks like a model and a person who looks like a troll can say the exact same words to the same person. The first will be invited to continue, the second will be complained about to HR.

Anytime anyone ever talks about sexual harassment to me, I ask them if the person who harassed them is ugly, stinky, or far outside of their age bracket. 100% of them report "yes." Apparently hotties are not capable of sexual harassment... or perhaps we just don't care if really awesome looking people come on to us.

Sure it is important that people not be touched against their will at the office, but modern political correctness surrounding this topic essentially makes anyone you ask on a date an instant victim and hands them to the keys to the kingdom. That is not a balanced approach. It's idiotic. Especially considering that most adult relationships are formed in the workplace. Obviously work and love life are acceptably mixed by most people since that's where most of us meet our mates.

Some claims are valid, but 99% are just people too cowardly to give direct feedback and say they are not interested or prefer totally professional behavior. So they triangulate through HR as a middleman out of fear. It's wrong, it's wrong, it's so very wrong.

jhack's picture

[quote="US41"]
She's making a power play.
[/quote]
We can’t know that.

[quote="US41"]
You will call someone up and tell them you think they rock, and they will five minutes later call your boss and say that you are threatening and that they are afraid you will hurt them.
[/quote]
Hyperbole? Is this really so common that praise is a risky thing?

[quote="US41"]
I don't hear that you did anything wrong.
[/quote]
[quote="sksingapore"]
I know what I did was galactically stupid
[/quote]
Sounds like someone knows he did something wrong.

[quote="US41"]
This kind of thing is going to happen.
[/quote]
[quote="US41"]
This won't be the last time this happens to you.
[/quote]
This is an excuse to engage in questionable behavior (you’ll get in trouble anyway, right?). This is not an effective strategy. You must take responsibility for your own behavior. Your chances of being accused of harassment are much, much lower if you behave properly at all times.

[quote="US41"]
Anytime anyone ever talks about sexual harassment to me, I ask them if the person who harassed them is ugly, stinky…
[/quote]
This is not an appropriate or legally defensible response to a concern about sexual harassment.

This is a topic fraught with emotion. It’s also a legal minefield. Bottom line: One should always treat colleagues with respect, and harassment claims must be taken seriously.

John

US41's picture

[quote="jhack"]Sounds like someone knows he did something wrong. [/quote]

To me, it does not. What I read is that someone got a little flirty after work, was not rebuffed or given any negative response, and proceded a little farther with a coworker.

That is not inappropriate behavior. Coworkers are fair game. If you are a manager, the people that report up to you are certainly off-limits in most companies I have experience in, but peers are not. Some companies have policies about dating between peers in the same workgroup, but it happens at incredibly high rates as quite a high percentage of marriages are born from office friendships. Clearly people meeting each other at work, dating, and then getting married is rather common. I can think of six married couples who all met and still work for my company right off the top of my head. They moved to different work groups and then outed themselves. Our company doesn't frown on that.

What I read in the original post was flirtation caused secret offense and an accusation was made the next day without any direct feedback to the alleged offender. I do not see flirting after work with a peer as inappropriate behavior unless the advance is rejected verbally, nor do I see it as sexual harassment in this case.

However, I do see failing to verbally reject their advances and then filing a complaint the next day as being a behavior I do not have a lot of respect for.

I can only go by the description given. Just because the guy feels guilty doesn't mean he did something wrong - it just means he is highly accountable to himself and is possibly blaming himself for something he should not be blaming himself for.

[quote][quote="US41"]
This kind of thing is going to happen.
[/quote]
[quote="US41"]
This won't be the last time this happens to you.
[/quote]
This is an excuse to engage in questionable behavior (you’ll get in trouble anyway, right?). [/quote]

It most certainly is not an excuse to engage in questionable behavior. It is a fundamental fact of life, as Mark says, 2 people in the same county equals conflict. There will be conflict. That doesn't excuse bad behavior. But it does say that if someone makes a political power play with us at the office and we cave, we'll find ourselves caving in quite a bit and unable to function.

There is going to be traffic. We still drive. We don't throw up our hands in disgust and give up and go home.

There is going to be rain. We still plan to go outside when we think it won't.

There are going to be accusations at the office. We still do our jobs, and we don't just throw up our hands and quit every time it happens. To do so is to live by the rules of people with character disorders who will accuse us falsely to harm us.

[quote]This is not an effective strategy. [/quote]

I believe I presented a very effective strategy assuming that someone flirted with a coworker and received an unexpected accusation the next day despite having not engaged in anything truly inappropriate.

BTW, the part you quoted, where I wrote about how I responded when people brought up the topic of sexual harassment, is not the strategy I presented. That's how I discuss the topic philosophically with anyone who brings it up - it's largely BS with some very small percentage of actual cases where there is real harassment. The strategy I recommended is that he agree to behave differently in the future without quitting or totally accepting all blame for things he is not responsible for.

There is a difference between taking responsibility for what you have done and falling to your knees neurotically holding yourself accountable for the weather and the positions of the stars in order to prove that you are sincere to someone else. The first is good, the second is self-destructive. I see, the original poster's story, evidence of the second.

If he did do something borderline inappropriate, falling on his sword could cause even more legal trouble, as an apology is often accepted as a confession and then turned around and used as a weapon later on.

Hold yourself accountable, but don't carry a cross up a hill on your shoulder and hang yourself from it. It will just be used against you and ramp things up to the next level even worse.

[quote]This is a topic fraught with emotion.[/quote]

Topics are not emotional. Only the people who discuss them might be emotional. Discussing this topic for me is no different than discussing anything else. I trust everyone here is likewise able to dispassionately discuss a fascinating and complex topic.

jhack's picture

Thank you for the clarifications, US41.

Early in my career, I was told: "Never get your honey where you get your money." Not everyone agrees (as statistics bear out).

So, we simply disagree: Managers should not flirt, date, or otherwise have any intimate moments with fellow workers, directs, indirects, superiors, etc.

John

vinnie2k's picture

[quote="jhack"][quote="US41"]
She's making a power play.
[/quote]
We can’t know that.
[/quote]
Especially since he tells us women in his area are not incentived to speak out - HR might have been the only option in her mind.

I think we should all be very careful about the cultural background of the case we're dealing before giving advice.

US41's picture

[quote="vinnie2k"][quote="jhack"][quote="US41"]
She's making a power play.
[/quote]
We can’t know that.
[/quote]
Especially since he tells us women in his area are not incentived to speak out - HR might have been the only option in her mind.

I think we should all be very careful about the cultural background of the case we're dealing before giving advice.[/quote]

I have lived in such a nation in Asia before. I feel pretty comfortable with the hundreds of refusals of very overt male advances by women I witnessed there to strongly believe that it was a power play.

bflynn's picture

sk, if you're still with us, let us know what's up?

From your brief description, I got the sense that you didn't do anything wrong, but we all know that can be irrelevant depending on how scared your boss might be.

Brian

sksingapore's picture

My boss is the head of the operation here, and had earlier outlined a plan to develop me as a potential successor. What I've done:

- neither confirm nor deny the specific allegations
- apologize if anything I did was deemed offensive
- commit that such behavior wouldn't happen again

My colleague will not engage in conversation and will excuse herself from meetings where I'm present. I think she's aware of the damage done to my career, and my guess is she feels a mixture of responsibility and he-deserves-it.

Irrespective of her response, I'm quite certain I'm off the succession planning chart. My plan is to stick it out another year and weigh the impact on my reputation/career track then. If my performance merits a level of forgiveness for a first mistake then I may survive this; if it's clear I've hit the glass ceiling I'll look for other options.

HR asked me to put my position in writing for my permanent file. Never a good sign eh?

bflynn's picture

[quote="sksingapore"]My boss is the head of the operation here, and had earlier outlined a plan to develop me as a potential successor. What I've done:

- neither confirm nor deny the specific allegations
- apologize if anything I did was deemed offensive
- commit that such behavior wouldn't happen again

My colleague will not engage in conversation and will excuse herself from meetings where I'm present. I think she's aware of the damage done to my career, and my guess is she feels a mixture of responsibility and he-deserves-it.

Irrespective of her response, I'm quite certain I'm off the succession planning chart. My plan is to stick it out another year and weigh the impact on my reputation/career track then. If my performance merits a level of forgiveness for a first mistake then I may survive this; if it's clear I've hit the glass ceiling I'll look for other options.

HR asked me to put my position in writing for my permanent file. Never a good sign eh?[/quote]

It sounds like you're realizing the glass ceiling. If something is in your permanent file, you'll probably need to start looking for the exit.

Meanwhile, keep your head up and stay focused on results. Ignore the behavior of the offended coworker, she appears to not be getting the traction she wants and is trying to push the matter? Just my read. At this point, her behavior is impacting the company because of her behavior, not because of anything you might have done.

The only improvement I could suggest - for future apolgies (obviously not related to this), you never "apologize IF". "If" conveys that the offense is entirely the fault of the other person. I know you probably feel this way, but check out the podcast on apologies for more.

Good Luck. Please keep us updated.

Brian

US41's picture

I would be very vague and admit to nothing in writing. It could easily become evidence against you later. I also would not assume that such an entry in your "permanent record" matters to anyone other than HR. I have never opened the files on any of my folks. They are hard to reach, and frankly, I don't care much about what is in there anyway since it is likely to be past reviews conducted by people I do not respect or BS like this sort of thing.

Sounds like HR is just looking for legal coverage to absolve them of any responsibility since they aren't going to do anything about it and don't want to be blamed later if you lose it and grab someone's fanny in the future.

Here's what floats up in my mind:

[i]I regret any misunderstanding that may have led to my coworker, ___insert name____, reportedly feeling uncomfortable, as that was certainly not my intention.

I remain open to any guidance offered to make me a more successful part of this team.

I apologize for the time the company has spent on this issue.[/i]

I once wrote a very vague, non apologetic letter while in Asia that got me out of quite a bit of trouble.

Some advice: Do not refuse their request for a written summary, but do stonewall them and not provide one. See if they remember to ask for it a 2nd time. If they do, you can provide something, or you can decide the written version will follow you around too much or expose you too much and then plan your exit strategy.

It is typical for Asian companies to ask for an "I'm sorry" letter. In this case, the "bad apology" Mark has referred to before is preferred over a sincere one. Apologize for her choices, apologize for her reactions, apologize that they misunderstand, etc.

Bad apologies are an art form in politics. They are a really crummy practice and when someone harms me, a bad apology does not impress me (nor many others). But in your situation, I believe one is called for.

But I am not an attorney, and you might wish to consult with a solicitor there to ensure that you are not setting yourself up for a galactically stupid mistake.